The Intellectuals and the American Idea
The Nice American.
by Gerald Sykes.
Creative Age. 310 pp. $3.00.
Sykes’s novel has hit on something that seems to be budding among American intellectuals: the impulse to join in the leadership of United States society as it is—or, at least some would say, as it is becoming. In the early 30’s, the thought of getting into the game of authority associated itself with revolution; intellectuals dreamed of their emergence as commissars after another apocalyptic Ten Days That Shook the World. It is characteristic of today’s changed mental climate that “the permanent revolution” is used as the title of a special issue of Fortune (February) dedicated to the American tradition—and the image on the cover is not Marx’s paternally derogatory beard nor Trotsky’s ominously glittering spectacles but George Washington’s reassuring wig. The intellectuals will now move upward not as vanguard of the proletariat but as formulators of The American Idea. Ambitions have been at once solidified and reduced in scale; perhaps because, after fifteen years of participating in authority through New Deal agencies, war programs, and high-circulation cultural organs, catastrophe and apotheosis no longer seem prerequisite to a seat in the social firmament. Or in more prosaic language, it has come to seem more reasonable to get to the top floor by taking an elevator than by blowing up the building.
Not that the intellectuals are thinking of running America. Strictly speaking, their urge is for place and role rather than for power. Even to secure that, they will have a tough struggle against the cultural Know-Nothingism that abominates Acheson, for example, because he has an admirable grasp of English speech. Yet for all the resistance to it, an elite of the knowing is being formed in America; it has captured certain almost impregnable strong points; the businessman is becoming willing to recognize that his own genius is limited to particular interests; and the realization is growing that the time is almost here when everything may depend on the man with what Thomas Mann called “an eye to the general.”
Sykes’s protagonist is an intellectual who has experienced perhaps an exactly correct amount of authority. He is a lieutenant colonel—not a major general, certainly not a “supreme commander.” Before the war Colonel Childress was a photographer, of the kind who takes photography as a fine art. This is as right as making him a colonel, since the passion for place is strongest not in poets or painters but among the practitioners of the middle arts that look to The People, and which have already established their own hierarchies, analogous to the military, of department chiefs, group supervisors, media directors, specialists, assignment editors. Childress, the artistic photographer, has also worked for Edison Electric in a fairly responsible job, though not a top one either. Now he’s in North Africa with the army, the war is just over, and he’s thinking about his place in the world as a “nice” American, that is, an American who thinks about his place in the world instead of just jumping into it.
That the thinking man is going to be needed in America is owing to the new leading position of the United States in international affairs. Having appeared suddenly among the nations with power in his hands, the American will have to be made conscious of himself as one capable of command. “We’re going to have to learn how to be imperial,” Childress soliloquizes on his North African stage, surrounded by Arabs, Frenchmen, British. “If we don’t produce a new kind of intellectual leadership, we’ll go under.”
Childress weighs himself and his Americanism in the balance of two women, and this is appropriate, too, even if it does lead to some unintended comedy. If the American intellectual is to start taking responsibility for social life in the United States, instead of regarding it as a geological phenomenon like the Rocky Mountains whose raw massiveness cannot be grasped by the intellect, he will do well to begin with his personal life, which means, of course, with the qualities of his mother, wife, and mistress.
As a pioneer in the fiction of global Americanism, Sykes has hewed rather roughly the two female figures on whom Childress practices his uncertainties. Jeanne is French, beautiful, rich, cultivated, artistic, sensual, etc., etc., and she loves Childress and he loves her. If he takes her away from her husband and marries her he’ll have consummation, leisure, appreciation, luxury. “He would get what every serious photographer desired, the best possible working conditions and a wife who understood his work.” At one time, when American intellectuals expatriated themselves for the sake of culture and sensibility, when the highest goal was Art, Jeanne—instead of being lined up as a problem on an equal plane with her antagonist, the American “heiress of all the ages”—would have turned up at the end of the story as The Solution. But now, it seems, Culture, Beauty, Sensuality, have found their antithesis—and it is not morality, at least not in the old sense, though Jeanne mistakenly thinks Childress wants to leave her because of the puritanical “masochisme américaine”; it is the desire for strength and rulership.
This headiness lets in Mollie, a big-shot career woman to whom Childress was once married and whose image he can no more shake off than the Freudian patient can shake off his mother. Mollie is also beautiful, a Senator’s niece, toast of high officials, impersonal and ferocious in bed though frigid, and Childress can’t stand her but he loves her too. She is his “hard home-grown destiny.” But her real appeal is that she is America as an opportunity for the intellectual to exert leadership:
I see that you really have no plan for your life at all,” Childress says. “You seem amazingly self-confident, but you’re doomed unless someone else helps you to make the right decisions.” “Someone like you?” she asks. “Who else?” answers the future voice of authority, a bit shaken by his own audacity. “I’m the only one who cares enough about you.
Besides Childress and the ladies, there are an Arab whose family is the victim of colonial violence, a philosopher who has survived a concentration camp and who understands life, the avuncular Senator who suggests Senator Wheeler, a stinker of a British Army officer who paints pictures and hates the United States. Nothing much happens in the novel—a trip to the Kasbah is a high point in both description and characterization. But maybe nothing much should happen in a novel devoted to the theme of meaning-as-American, since for Americans action and happening are more or less the opposite of self-consciousness.
When one is interested in culture, one is interested in humanity, and in oneself as a human being. When one is interested in power—one doesn’t know what one wants. In the end, Childress turns his back on the Old World, not because, like earlier “exiles,” he has learned from it to appreciate the United States as a rich scene whose human meaning he must try to decipher, and which he can serve intellectually by contributing to its consciousness of itself. He chooses America as a man defeated into signing up, with a heroic flourish, for the “tough game” of mastery.